Dean Peterson’s Tips For Building a Winning Collegiate Cycling Program


by Rob Annis

Over the past eight years, Marian University’s Dean Peterson has built the best collegiate cycling program in the country. Need proof? Just check out the 26 national championships the team has earned.
The list of riders who have turned pedals for Marian is a virtual who’s who in American domestic cycling over the past decade – Josh Johnson, Allie Dragoo, Adam Leibovitz, David Williams, Katie Antonneau, Rob Bush, Coryn Rivera, Sinead Miller, Jake Rytlewski  … the list could go on and on. How does Peterson attract such talent to the small Indianapolis school? How does he nurture lesser-known talents to reach their full potential? How does he keep kids – many of whom are out of a very structured environment for the first time – focused and on the right track?
Here are some of Peterson’s tactics for building a winning program.
Use social media, other athletes to recruit. If you’re a top-level, up-and-coming amateur cyclist, be on the lookout for a Facebook message from Peterson. The Marian coach often uses Facebook, Twitter and other social media outlets to get to know potential riders.
Marian cyclists also aren’t shy about recruiting riders for the school. In addition to making their case at races, they also open their dorm rooms and apartments for campus visitors.
High GPAs preferred. Because cycling isn’t as high of a priority as, say, football at most schools, scholarship dollars can be scarce. That’s less of a concern with Marian, given its cycling history, but Peterson still looks for athletes who are as successful in the classroom as on a crit course. By mixing both academic and athletic scholarship dollars, many students find they can better afford tuition.
“We package academic and athletic scholarships to ensure a well-rounded college experience,” Peterson said. “… We don’t want to only incentivize the cycling piece when they are here to go to school, too.”
A high GPA is also a sign the student-cyclist is good at prioritizing their time and putting in hard work.
Establish a support system. New riders are strongly encouraged to connect with and learn from upperclassmen. Peterson also asks professors to give him updates on each student’s progress, especially if they’re having difficulty academically. (If they don’t reach at least a 2.0 GPA, they’re prohibited from racing and put on academic probation by the university.) Peterson admits he’s had students who go a little crazy with their newfound freedom from home.
“It can be tough for a kid that age to figure out various social influences and possibilities that exist just down their dorm hall,” Peterson said. “A lot of them don’t know just how much their life has been micro-managed until they got here. They just figured that’s how life was.”
Get buy-in from the school, professors. At the beginning of each semester, Marian cyclists typically sit down with their professors with a copy of their race schedule, identifying the dates they need to be excused from class. For those students with international commitments, they could miss weeks, if not months, of class time. But because they’re not in a physical classroom, don’t think the students aren’t studying. They’re constantly working on their schoolwork between races, taking online exams or attending classes via Skype. Because the students are diligent in making up the classes, professors typically give more leeway.
“There’s no entitlement atmosphere,” Peterson said. “Students need to earn that trust from their professors. They’re expected to do all the work their fellow students are doing – no one is receiving a watered-down education.”
Luckily, the team and faculty have established a healthy trust over the years — No student has ever tried to skip class by claiming to be in Belgium with the national team, Peterson said.
No rider is more important than any other rider in the program.  Peterson encourages regular team gatherings. The women riders gathered once a week at 7:30 a.m. last January to bond – taking turns to share stories, do activities, as well as discuss race strategies and nutrition.
“We did this to prevent a ‘queen bee’ scenario,” Peterson said. “We wanted all our riders to really get to know and respect one another, to break down walls and get away from the ‘who’s special or not special’ perceptions. Just let them be college students.
“If you let a system of entitlement build,” Peterson continued, “it will destroy (your program).
Focus on team glory, not individual accomplishments. Peterson prefers not to name a team leader for most races, believing it can make race strategy too predictable. Instead, he encourages each of his riders to attack and take intelligent risks. If none of the breakaways succeed, then the team can work for their best sprinter. This approach keeps each of the riders highly motivated, knowing that each race could be theirs if things play out perfectly. It also helps the team earn a better start position at many of the major races.
Prioritize education. With luck, an adolescence focused on racing might earn the rider a year or three in the professional peloton. Many racers aren’t prepared for life off the bike. That’s why earning a college degree is so important.
“We’re not on a mission to develop pro cyclists,” Peterson said. “We want our riders to have a comprehensive student-athlete experience at Marian.”
People first, then athletes. Peterson considers himself a teacher first, then a coach. He sees his charges as more than just athletes working toward another national championship. He genuinely cares about each of his athletes, taking an interest in their lives off the bike as well.
“I wouldn’t have taken this team without that education component,” Peterson said. “Seeing these kids grow and graduate and do something important with their lives … that’s what I love about this job.”

This Article Updated August 19, 2014 @ 04:58 PM For more information contact: